A Northwoods Almanac for Oct. 18 – 31, 2019
Sightings – Frost, Witch Hazel, Kirtland’s Warblers, Robins, Rusty Blackbirds
We experienced our first frost (and snowfall) in Manitowish on 10/12. Back in the 1980s when we first moved here, and then on into the 1990s, we nearly always experienced our first frost on 8/20 – green tomatoes were the rule! In the last decade, we are now harvesting ripe tomatoes and zucchinis late into September and early October.
Conversely, our witch hazel shrub flowered back on 9/17, an extremely early date, and it continues to flower.
Kirtland’s warblers were recently removed as a federally endangered species. The songbird met recovery goals after years of intensive habitat management, mostly in lower Michigan where the core population lives. Listed as endangered since the late 1960s, Kirtland’s dipped to a low of 167 pairs in 1974 and again in 1987 before it began a steady climb toward recovery. The current population is estimated to be around 2,000 pairs. The delisting of the Kirtland’s Warbler is cause for celebration and proof that the Endangered Species Act works.
In Wisconsin, the bird remains endangered – as of 2017, we have 20 nesting Kirtland’s pairs.
Every early October, a large flock of robins appears in our yard to feast on our mountain ash berries. We’ve had the largest crop of berries ever, so they’ve been busy! I’ve planted another 10 mountain ash trees, so when they mature, I’m curious how many robins will find our little yard in Manitowish.
Bev Engstrom echoed the robin theme, writing on 10/10: “Migrating robins stopped off in my yard and found the crabapple tree. Cleaned 'er up in two days.” She also sent a beautiful photo of the robins.
|photo by Bev Engstrom|
Robin migration is in full tilt everywhere. Hawk Ridge in Duluth tallied 3,655 robins on 10/7, with a seasonal total on 10/11 of 8,650.
Rusty blackbirds are also coming through now – look for the yellow eye to differentiate them from red-winged blackbirds. As of 10/11, 3,333 have been tallied, with 1,738 on 10/7 as the high count on Hawk Ridge.
Speaking of Hawk Ridge, as of 10/11, counters have tallied 166,682 individuals from 152 species of birds including the following:
Broad-winged hawks: 22,910 total, with highs of 8,314 on 9/23 and 2,707 on 9/25.
Blue jays: 24,810 so far, with highs of 5,307 on 9/19 and 3,428 on 9/23.
Sharp-shinned hawks: 16,053 so far, with highs of 1,167 on 9/16 and 1,620 on 9/23.
Yellow-rumped warblers came through in big numbers on 9/25 - 1,227!
Unidentified warblers (think about trying to identify warblers as they fly overhead) totalled 13,470 on 9/24.
Cedar waxwings: 8,043 so far, with a high of 1,605 on 9/24.
Hawk Ridge is not only along the flightpath of raptors and songbirds, but also of owls. On 10/4, they captured and banded a remarkable 168 saw-whet owls.
Water levels have been exceptionally high on most lakes this year with many shoreline trees and shrubs inundated all summer long. While paddling, I’ve seen very significant plant die-offs along shorelines, particularly on seepage lakes.
|high water on Pallette Lake in July|
It’s unclear to me what the upper limit of tolerance for high water is for all of our trees and shrubs, so I got in contact with Dom Ciruzzi, a PhD candidate at UW Madison who is conducting a shoreline study at the Trout Lake Limnology Station. He noted the following: “There is a gradient of responses in different trees to flood tolerance. Some trees (red maple, bur oak, elms, sycamore, and more) can tolerate several weeks to months of inundation, whereas others (sugar maple, pines, red oak, cedar, and more) will likely be severely damaged by a week or less of inundation. However, even the trees that can tolerate several weeks to months of inundation will likely die if lake levels do not drop in that growing season and into the next year.
“The mechanism killing these trees is primarily to do with the connection between oxygen and roots. Roots need air to breathe and when all of the pore space in the soil is filled with water, the roots cannot respire, which leads to root death, reduced nutrient uptake, and if prolonged enough, tree mortality. Once all the roots are dead, it is pretty hard for a tree to bounce back – but in some instances the tree can survive if the flooding recedes and has not killed off all the roots.
“My research into trees and groundwater, and recently lake levels, has me considering how these current lake levels fit in the bigger picture. I'm speculating here, but it seems to me that the Northwoods in particular has experienced a wider variability in lake levels over the past decade than they have in the last 75-100 years. In 2008-2010, a severe drought lowered lake levels to an all-time low, and about 10 years later to the present, lake levels are at an all-time high. We know from previous research that these fluctuations occur about every decade, but the most recent fluctuation (from 2008-2019) has been very dramatic. One might expect within 10 years for the lake levels to decline again, as part of the natural cycle of water levels in the area, but we'll have to wait and see!
“Likely, if water levels increase into next year, I'd expect a lot more trees to die. There is also a gradient of tree composition on the shores of lakes to the uplands. Trees in the 100- or 1000-year floodplain are likely not adapted to periodic flooding and would not withstand a season of high lake levels that reach these upland trees. I'd hate to see it, but if lake levels continue to rise in the area into next year and possibly into subsequent years, I'd expect unprecedented tree die off on the shores of most lakes in the area.
“In some areas, I'm observing the shallowest groundwater levels I've seen in the past 5 years I've been monitoring these forests. I'd also expect in some areas that the groundwater will or has already reached the surface, and at these locations a very shallow water table will likely kill off trees that are not used to wetland conditions.”
On the plus side of this dismaying projection, Dom adds that “these dead trees on the shores of lakes will likely fall into the lake and provide very valuable habitat and space for fish to escape predators and reproduce safely, so another side of this is that with the death of these trees, there may be new life and safety for fish in these lakes.”
Winter Finch Report
Ron Pittaway, an ornithologist in Toronto, Ontario, issues his “Winter Finch Forecast” every autumn detailing the likelihood of Canadian finches moving south for the upcoming winter. His prediction for this winter flatly states, “This is not an irruption (flight) year for winter finches in the East. Most winter finches will stay in the north.”
The availability of food determines whether birds come south or not, thus Pittway goes on to detail the overall stock of seeds and fruits: “There are abundant spruce cone crops across the boreal forest in Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland. Most conifers (except pines), birches and other seed crops are good to excellent in much of the Northeast.”
Pittaway then specifically looks at the needs of individual species and notes, for instance, that pine grosbeaks rely in large part on mountain ash berries, and there’s an abundant crop of them. Likewise, bohemian waxwings also rely on mountain ash berries, so they, too, should mostly remain north. Common redpolls, on the other hand, bank on birch, alder, and spruce seeds being bountiful, and they, too, are abundant.
So, for these northern birds, when the cupboards are stocked, little reason exists to risk the dangers of migration. They’re highly adapted to cold temperatures, making winter food their major limiting factor.
This is Pittaway’s 21st annual winter finch forecast, and while he’s not always been perfect in his prognostications, he’s usually a very good bet.
Thus, our feeders may be lonelier than usual this winter. But take heart in the fact that this is very good news for the birds – they will be well fed further north and likely have a good reproductive spring because of a less stressful winter. Their absence, while our loss, is an overall gain for the birds.
The peak Orionid meteor shower occurs on 10/21 – look for an average of 20 meteors per hour.
From 10/22-10/25, the average low temperature in the Minocqua area drops to 32° for the first time since April 22. Minocqua averages 183 days with low temperatures at or below freezing.
New moon occurs on 10/27.
On 10/29, look after dusk for Venus about 4° below the waxing crescent moon, and for Mercury just above it, about 3° south of the moon.
Thought for the Week
“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people, but it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.” – David Orr
Please share your outdoor sightings and thoughts: call 715-476-2828, e-mail at email@example.com, snail-mail at 4245N State Highway 47, Mercer, WI, or see my blog at www.manitowishriver.blogspot.com